Overcoming Writer’s Anxiety

Many aspiring writers feel insecure about what they view as their ability to write. In other words, they often let their concern with matters of style and mechanics dominate the issues that hold them back. But what wannabe writers often have, instead, is motivation issues that they interpret as an inability to write fabulous sentences, paragraphs, images, and dialogue. The fact that these aspirants to the craft want to write, say they want to write, and say they have fabulous projects to pursue makes it clear that at bottom they’re motivated to write, but they get caught in a vicious circle that cripples their taking the necessary action to overcome their anxieties.

There is no better antidote to fear of the bear than to face the bear.

There is no better antidote to fear of the bear than to face the bear.

It’s important that novice writers come to honestly understand what their motivations for writing are. Many claim they write for themselves, as if the act were strictly private and not public. These writers often say they don’t read other writers because they don’t want to be influenced by them. They tend to think they exist in an isolated vacuum, as if they make up the language, the forms known as sentences and paragraphs—even the literary forms: story, poem, essay, reflection, etc. As if they’d never heard a story till they wrote one themselves!

Writing, sleeping.

Writing, sleeping.

Other writers seek fame. Some want to strike it rich. Others feel they have a story they just have to tell. Others, still, want to change the world. Yet others simply love the language, the possibilities of words. Some want to write to understand themselves, to use writing to explore the psyche. For them, writing is therapeutic. In other words, there are a number of reasons writers write or want to write. Beginning writers, writers setting our on their first journey undertaking a big project, a full length book, should have a clear sense of why they want to write and how important it is in the context of their lives. It can be as simple as this: “I just love to write.”

Loves taking on the bear!

Loves taking on the bear!

Some writing aspirants are actually good writers of sentences and paragraphs, descriptions and dialogue, because they already write routinely in their work or in diaries or journals. They’ve written decent sentences and paragraphs all their lives and described places and replicated dialogue without a second thought, either aloud or in emails to friends and family. More than likely, they’ve gotten good grades on papers they’ve written in school. In other words, they’re probably readier to take on their big dream project than they know.

Professional experience taking on the bear.

Professional experience taking on the bear.

Probably the greatest stumbling block to pumping out material for a full-length collection of short stories, novel, or memoir is time management. Translate as “life” management. Working parents who have children, non-parents who work overtime or give their all to their careers, students who have tests to study for and papers to write—all put these important areas of their life first, of course. But they often use their life commitments as excuses not to take on a pursuit they view as not only valuable and attractive but also as difficult and time-consuming. They pit the day job against the dream work rather than find a way to do both. Kids become an excuse not to write.

Too young!

Too young!

What these writer dreamers have to do, then, is make a slot of time available every day during which they write assiduously and relentlessly—without exception. If they produce 50 words in one hour a day, they can finish a full-length book every two or three years, a good output for any writer.

Another stumbling block for neophyte novelists and memoirists is the concern with perfection. No writer spills out perfect prose on the first stab with a pencil. Shaping and smoothing sentences is an ongoing process, both within the context of a growing book but also in the context of one’s whole writing life. Prose writers, some would say even poets, should write stream of consciousness first then return to fixing and improving sentences (and lines) later. Best to get a body of material down on paper or in a document file to trifle with when the mood for tinkering strikes. Best to return to raw material when the eyes are fresh. There’s a time to create, a time to revise, and a time to proof.

And a time to pull the scalpel!

And a time to pull the scalpel!

Another major hang-up for writers is a most persistent anxiety: whether what the writer has to write is really worth reading. Is there a story here? Is this life really worth writing about? Is it interesting? Is the verbiage compelling enough to draw a reader in and keep the reader reading? What these writers don’t realize is that the average successful writer doesn’t lead any more interesting a life than anyone else. They can’t: They’re too busy writing. They simply have an eye (or ear), the drive, the follow-through, and the ultimate concern with detail to write fascinating or at least engaging books. They believe in the possibility, they discipline themselves to the act, and then they make the necessary contacts to see a project through.

Such writers, when they fear the bear, face the bear.

Such writers, when they fear the bear, face the bear.

On top of setting aside an hour a day to write, to do nothing else but write, to write no matter what, inspired new writers need to establish short-range, attainable goals they can reach in a single writing session or in no longer than a week. Such daily or weekly goals might include writing an opening, a descriptive paragraph or section, or an important piece of dialogue, working up transitions, catching up on any necessary research, reworking the outline, researching and contacting agents, designers, and publishers, or doing general organization of files and folders.

But the real key to writing full-length pieces, in this fragmented rush that is our world today, is producing a carefully thought-out, frequently reworked chapter, section, scene, or paragraph outline. Once a writer has a relatively tight plan or program for working from day to day, the book begins to write itself. No more staring blankly at a white (or yellow) piece of paper or new document staring back—for not knowing what to write. Hang the to-do list from a shelf or lay it to one side on the desk. By making each task small enough, a writer can finish one task in a single day’s session—in a couple days at most. It’s also a good idea to make separate documents and files for each paragraph, section, or chapter for the sake of organization and efficiency.

Thus, it makes sense to structure a first book using short chapters or using longer chapters that break down into short, clearly delineated sections or scenes. Some non-fiction books can be broken down into categories with bold subheadings or by chronological occurrence and date. Once a writer gets going and finds a fluid voice, the book begins to spill out like milk from a carton, weighted at the pouring end by the pouring itself.

Jesting the bear.

Jesting the bear.

The best way to think about the drafting, revising, and proofing stages is to think big first and small last. Pump out too much material, if necessary, then whittle back to the best content and sentences. Revising means adding, subtracting, and rewriting whole chunks of language, making drastic changes, and making them with fearless sagacity. Proofing involves tinkering and playing with details that can enhance the reading experience. But proofing—spelling, for example—isn’t what makes a writer. Producing abundances of material first is what first makes a writer.

Once a writer faces the bear, he or she can usually wrestle it to the ground and pin it. If it takes pinning a bear to the ground to survive as a writer, then the writer must pin the bear to the ground.

Remember, the mind, the brain, isn’t all that writes. The whole being of the self writes. Write with the body. The body holds the whole story, the whole song—not just a few brain cells. The hands become the givers of the language, the verbal pictures, and the voices to the paper or screen. The hands know everything. Even the pen contains thoughts and moments of the world within. Trust to the body and the pen. Make the hand, the pen—the very ink—assiduous, relentless, effusive. Leave it to the mind to keep the hand moving, the ink flowing, the words appearing as if by magic.

The bear has much to teach.

The bear has much to teach.

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10 thoughts on “Overcoming Writer’s Anxiety

  1. So when the bear takes a #%€*, it is self criticism, and that #%€* needs to be stepped over and not stepped in.

    “I was not writing—I was communicating. I was not composing a story—I was sculpting an image illusory of your imagination.”—TF

    Way to potty-train the bear, Rick.

    • True, the bear may simply be that great clawed and fanged critic who indeed requires taming and being put to work when the time is right. All writers have bears. Some are monsters looming over writers and others are well-behaved teddies playing happily in a corner. Rick

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